Play Seen in Humans, Fish, Atoms, and the Universe

(Jens Kuhfs/Getty Images)

'A Self-Organizing Quirkiness' May Exist in Nature Itself … From Ants to Atoms to Distant Galaxies.

Nature's Edge Notebook #17       

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Is the universe designed to make you giggle, or at least to smile?

Is fun and play built into matter itself, part of the universe - from the tiniest spinning atoms to the largest wheeling galaxies?

Is there "a self-organizing quirkiness" inherent in nature itself?

It's not only that some leading scientists now believe they can demonstrate play behavior in fish (not those big brained mammals the dolphins but little tiny-brained scaly fish) and cold-blooded lizards - even the fearsome komodo dragon - as well as in invertebrates such as ants and lobsters.

The rapidly growing scientific field of "play studies" is turning up so many surprising examples of what at least appear to be play activities in the most surprising places, that scientists are asking whether there may be something about the very fabric of matter itself that continually spawns and nurtures fun and play.

"I think that there's a self-organizing quirkiness which is an inherent part of nature," says Stuart Brown, one of the field's leading theorists.

Brown told ABC News he thinks evolution keeps favoring brains in all sorts of species (including us) that have a healthy appetite for fun and play … and that what creates that appetite includes what he likes to call "divinely superfluous neurons" - brain cells.

Think of these divinely superfluous brain cells as well-fed kids let out at recess: Free for the moment of teachers trying to focus their energies, they naturally do what kids have always done - go invent some games in the schoolyard - play.

Brown cites many studies that seem to show play is a natural unprompted activity in many species and at many ages - built in.

Experts now consulted at annual academic conferences on play studies include atomic physicists exploring the possibility that something in the intricate structure of atoms themselves may initiate the playful "quirkiness" and "divine superfluity" that Brown and other play specialists are now turning up in the nervous systems of so many species.

Some Rules of the Game

But first, a few "rules of the game" - some definitions in this journalistically playful exploration of the subject.

(We writers, in fact, use a kind of playfulness all the time in trying to improve our writing. We aim to turn clichés on their ear, so to speak, and thus engage and heighten your expectations as a reader or viewer, so as to make our reports more "fun" to read and watch.)

That phrase "rules of the game" is here lifted from the title of an engaging illustrated children's book by another leader in the field, Dr. Marc Bekoff.

In "Animals at Play: Rules of the Game," Bekoff shows some of the species in which he and others have documented play activity: squirrels, mice, elephants, cats, dogs, bears, monkeys, sea lions, crows, coyotes, and kangaroos.

And he explains that (as scientists have shown) animals follow these rules:

  1. Everyone must want to play.
  2. Everyone has to cooperate - they work together - to keep the game from becoming fighting.
  3. Everyone needs to communicate and pay attention to each other's movements, sounds and smells.

Burghardt's  5  Criteria for Play

Stuart Brown (in the previous Nature's Edge Notebook) told us, playfully enough, that he prefers not to have to define play, but that if he must, this handy definition can serve:

"Apparently purposeless behavior that is fun to do, pleasurable."

Another leader in the field, Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee, searching for a way to bring rigor to the quest to discover play behavior in many species, has worked out these exacting scientific criteria:

Burghardt's  5  Criteria For Play

  1. Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed.
  2. Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
  3. Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
  4. Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
  5. Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

Ants, Cockroaches, Wasps, Shrimp, Lobsters … and Ants Playing 'Like So Many Puppies'

The observation of play behavior in surprising places is not new.

Scientists have suspected for at least 200 years that ants engage in play behavior - since even before Charles Darwin.

Burghardt retraces the lineage of this playful scientific notion in his book  "The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits."

He seems to find it an enjoyable idea - fun - as did Darwin.

In a chapter entitled, "Play at the Margins: Invertebrates," Burghardt explores the possibility that play behavior has been observed in cockroaches, shrimp, lobsters … and ants.

He describes how, in 1877, Darwin himself was already quoting the observation of one P. Huber in 1810 on how ants play:

"(Darwin) wrote that: 'Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies.' "

Watch a Video of Possible Play by Lizards and Fish

Burghardt compiled a video of lizards, including the Komodo dragon, and even fish engaged in activity that he suggests may be genuine play.

It can be found online within an article on play studies in The Scientist, entitled: " Recess: Fish, reptiles, and even some invertebrates appear to play. But when is it play, and not something else? And why do animals do it?" Watch it here:

Nor is the notion of  play in nature new among philosophers and other thinkers - even going back to the beginning of civilization.

The most ancient myth-makers and the latest psychologists have depicted happy robust play as both symptom and cause of health and sanity.

Venus, for one - a goddess whose influence on humans is so essential to the continuation of the species - was honored by ancient poets with an "epic epithet" that described her as being "the laughter-loving goddess."

And artists down through the centuries have declared play to be essential to the best art.

The great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Doctor Strangelove," "A Clockwork Orange") is quoted by one of his co-screenwriters as having remarked that "Film is art, and art is play, and making a movie is all fun and play - except the filming."

As those who have seen Kubrick's masterpiece of modern horror, "The Shining," remember all too well, it explicitly shows what psychological and bloody terrors may arise when a man forgets that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

(And indeed, after the frightening Jack in the movie - played by Jack Nicholson - turns down an invitation to play outside with his wife and son, citing work he has to do, things get worse.)

Experts in the field of play behavior - and all the above scientists, philosophers and artists - make it clear that they are not ignoring the great suffering that erupts over and over in the world.

Rather, they are exploring and discovering ways in which play and playfulness seem to offer a greater likelihood, at least, of health and happiness amid all the world's dangers.

It is good news, they say, that fun and play, properly understood, may be seen as beneficial for not only survival but also for general health and sanity.

A New Definition of Sanity That Dovetails With Play

A newly emerging school of psychology that focuses on what it calls "affect regulation" - the way humans shift between various "affects" (loosely defined as moods or mental states) - has a unique definition of sanity that dovetails with the benefits scientists are finding in play activity.

Sanity, in the words of Daniel Hill, a leading voice in affect regulation psychology, may be best defined as "maximum complexity with maximum flexibility."

Those two mental qualities - mental and emotional flexibility and access to a greater complexity of ideas and affects - are both encouraged by robust play activity, according to Brown, Burghardt and many other experts in the field.

Two Journals in the Fast Growing Field of Play

Want to play around on the Internet and explore the fast growing field of play studies?

Two journals this reporter has found it highly instructive - and fun - to peruse are:

American Journal of Play at:

… and the new International Journal of Play at:


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This is the seventh in a series on animal intelligence and the science of play behavior :

1-   " Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter - Dateline Botswana" At:    

                      (Nature's Edge Notebook #11)

2-  "Dogs Use Subway, Cat Takes Bus…" At:

                     (Nature's Edge Notebook #12)

3-  "Who Needs Words? Crows?  You? Wild Gorillas? Alison Krauss? …" At: 

                    (Nature's Edge Notebook #13)

4-   "How Would a Prairie Dog Describe You? Just Ask One!" At:

                             (Nature's Edge Notebook #14)

5-  "Dolphins Reported Talking Whale in Their Sleep: Freud's 'Royal Road to the unconscious'  may have surfaced at a pool in France." At:

                     (Nature's Edge Notebook #15)

6-  "Fun and Play Are Key to Survival for Bears, Dogs, Humans, Birds, and Maybe Even Ants." At:

                        (Nature's Edge Notebook #16)